Joseph Alexander Mabry II (January 26, 1826 – October 19, 1882) was an American folk figure and businessman active primarily in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the mid-nineteenth century. Mabry earned a fortune through land and railroad speculation during the 1850s, and was known throughout the South for his herd of race horses. During the Civil War, Mabry donated a large supply of uniforms and tents to the Confederate Army, and was rewarded with the rank of general. For the remainder of his life, he was thus often referred to by the sobriquet, “General Mabry.”
In his day, Mabry was one of Knoxville’s most influential citizens. In 1853, Mabry and his brother-in-law, William G. Swan, donated the initial acreage for the city’s Market Square. As president of the Knoxville and Kentucky Railroad, Mabry raised millions of dollars in funding for railroad construction in the region. After the Civil War, Mabry quickly made amends with the city’s pro-Union businessmen, and continued to champion railroad development. By the 1870s, however, his business ventures had mostly failed, leaving him heavily in debt. In 1882, Mabry and his son were killed in a shootout with banker Thomas O’Connor in downtown Knoxville, an incident later chronicled by Mark Twain in his book, Life on the Mississippi.
The Mabry–Hazen House, built by Mabry in 1858, still stands in Knoxville.
Mabry was born near modern Concord in west Knox County, Tennessee, to state legislator and farmer Joseph Alexander Mabry and Alice Hare Scott. In 1837, the elder Mabry was killed in a duel in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, leaving Mabry to be raised by his older brother, George (builder of the Mabry-Hood House). After completing school in Knox County, Mabry is believed to have attended the Holston Seminary (in New Market), and possibly Tusculum College, although the latter has no record of his attendance.
In the early 1850s, Mabry formed a landholding company that speculated in land on the periphery of Knoxville. In 1853, Mabry and his brother-in-law, attorney William G. Swan, donated what is now Market Square (then empty pastureland just north of the city limits) to the city for the establishment of a market house, where regional farmers could sell produce. During the same period, Mabry used his connections in the Tennessee state legislature to obtain funding for railroad construction, acquiring over the years millions of dollars in bonds for the Knoxville and Kentucky Railroad (by the time the railroad was placed in receivership in 1869, it had been loaned over $2.3 million by the state). Mabry was named president of this railroad in 1858, and had begun building the first stretch of this line to Clinton when the Civil War halted construction.
Mabry raised prized racehorses that competed in races across the South, and in 1860 he listed his occupation as “stock raiser.” In 1858, Mabry built what is now known as the Mabry-Hazen House on a hill in East Knoxville, where he lived for the rest of his life. Mabry also served as a trustee for East Tennessee University (now the University of Tennessee).
By the early 1860s, Mabry was one of Knoxville’s largest slaveholders, and like most Democrats, he generally supported secession. During the secession crisis that followed Abraham Lincoln‘s election in November 1860, Mabry waffled between angrily calling for “immediate secession,” and seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis. In April 1861, Mabry chased away a Confederate brass band attempting to interrupt a speech by pro-Unionist Andrew Johnson. The following day, however, Union supporter Charles Douglas was shot by a Confederate soldier on Gay Street in an incident for which Mabry was later charged as an accessory.
In December 1861, William “Parson” Brownlow, the vitriolic pro-Union editor of the Knoxville Whig, was jailed by Confederate authorities on charges of treason. While most of Knoxville’s secessionists celebrated the arrest and called for Brownlow to be hanged, Mabry nevertheless lobbied on Brownlow’s behalf, and managed to secure his release. Brownlow never forgot this gesture, and during the Reconstruction period following the war, Mabry was one of the few ex-Confederates spared the wrath of Brownlow’s regime.
During the war, Mabry established a supply depot that provided uniforms and tents to Confederate soldiers. He later claimed to have donated $100,000 to the Confederate cause, although historians point out that he may have earned upwards of one million dollars in contracts with Confederate purchasing agents during the course of the war. Furthermore, when the Union Army occupied Knoxville in September 1863, Mabry quickly switched sides, and offered his assistance to the occupying forces. He took the United States Oath of Allegiance on January 29, 1864.